Vance Jacobs Travels to Myanmar

April 4, 2012

By Jacqui Palumbo

© Vance Jacobs

Vance Jacobs is rarely stationary. His home base is San Francisco, California, but he spends much of his time traveling around the world working on projects that have global reach. He splits his time between advertising and editorial assignments and insightful photojournalistic work where he gives visibility to lesser-seen geographical and socio-political spaces. He has photographed displaced farmers of the Kieni forest in Kenya, taught Columbian inmates how to photograph their life in a prison that rents and sells cell space like real estate, and traveled on foot on the fringe of the United States along the U.S.-Mexican border. Most recently he was able to travel to The Republic of the Union of Myanmar – formerly Burma – through a corporate assignment.

Every six months, Jacobs photographs for an organization of top CEOs that take 1-2 week trips to locations around the world with each other and their families. The aim is to connect in a non-business environment, and to have the opportunity to experience different cultures and meet with world leaders and public figures in a variety of different fields.

Jacobs travelled with 30 CEOs, their spouses and older children to Myanmar. To document the trip, he had to plan wisely, meeting with the trip organizers to select the events that would be the most visually compelling and memorable for the clients. “My goal is to provide the families with a combination of iconic images that really capture the country,” he comments. Jacobs is a veteran now with several of these trips under his belt, but he still arrives with a thorough plan so he isn’t overwhelmed on the spot.

Myanmar was an especially intriguing travel location because of its complicated history and its transitory status, as it has been largely isolated for fifty years while it has been under military rule. Nearly 30 years of consistent human rights violations severely strained relations with the United Nations. In 1990, when the governing military ignored the outcome of a democratic election, Myanmar was hit with economic sanctions from the United States and all relations were cut off. American filmmaker Robert Lieberman, who offered a rare glimpse of the life of the Burmese with his film They Call it Myanmar: Lifting the Curtain, has stated that Myanmar is the second most isolated country in the world next to North Korea. It is only since 2010 that relations have improved, whenanother election was held. Though the legitimacy of the results were debated, several reforms have shown human rights improvements including the release of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest, establishment of the National Human Rights Commission and the easing of press censorship.

Tourism has been complicated in Myanmar since it’s allowance in 1992. Much of the country remains off-limits to foreigners and their interactions with the Burmese are tightly regulated by the military. Photojournalists are not easily welcomed and may be deemed suspicious and monitored throughout their stay. Jacobs was aware of this and brought a minimal amount of equipment – one camera, two lenses, one laptop – so as not to be identified as a professional photographer. He was also very aware of his interactions with locals at all times so as not to jeopardize anyone’s safety.

Traveling around Myanmar for ten days and experiencing the metamorphosis of the country was astounding for Jacobs. Despite the slow change of international relations and economic status, he found the Burmese are connecting to the outside world with remarkable speed. Six months before the trip, he and the group members were warned that they would have no access to phones or the internet. But with the easing of press censorship, internet access has flourished with some of the 80 formerly banned Web sites becoming a daily activity for many of the locals. Jacobs explains, “In six months – give or take – the citizens had gone from not having access to the internet to over a million hits a day on YouTube as they explored and communicated with the outside world for the first time.” 

Because of the positive development, “there is optimism in the air,” Jacobs says. “It was amazing to be in Myanmar during this period of its history. He felt privileged to be able to explore the country while it is still largely untouched by tourism and before the Burmese culture completely adjusts to the new cultures and information they now can access.

One of the best parts of his trip, he says, was the opportunity to meet and photograph Aung San Suu Kyi after her fifteen years of house arrest. Jacobs spent an hour and a half with her as she was introduced to the CEOs and their families at a dinner in her honor. He comments, “The most extraordinary thing about it from my perspective was her ability to connect with literally everyone she was introduced to no matter their age or where they came from in the world.”

Jacobs’ Myanmar series is subtle and meditative. He frames each moment with care as he shows the aspects of a culture that has developed with little impression from the world since the 1960’s. Myanmar is a work-in-progress, a complicated country with an unknown future, but Jacobs shows the beauty in the details and in the transitory state of the Burmese people.

To see more of Vance Jacob’s work, visit his Web site.